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Flight - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B+
Acting: A-
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

Critics all over are practically wetting themselves over the harrowing plane crash sequence that occurs near the beginning of Flight, like it's the most gripping thing they've ever seen. Did none of these people see Alive in 1993? Okay, to be fair, special effects weren't quite as good then, but I can still remember the first time I saw that, and that crash scene -- complete with people their seats being sucked out the back of the plane -- had me horrified in a way Flight never quite managed. That, and maybe others would rather forget that in Alive, after the plane crashes in the Andes, they end up eating each other.

Nobody gets eaten in Flight, except perhaps metaphorically, as alcohol and cocaine eats Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) from the inside out. And to be fair, yes, that crash scene is harrowing, with some stunning detail of technical rendering on screen. A mechanical failure causes the plane to nosedive, and the only way Whitaker manages to right it is by flipping it upside-down. He then glides it just long enough to flip it back over and crash land it in a Georgia field. The wing crashing through the steeple of a church is a nice touch.

With 102 people on board, counting the crew, only six die. Inevitably the media hails Whitaker as a hero. But guess what? Toxicology reports show that Whitaker's blood alcohol level was at 2.4% while flying that plane. The legal limit for driving cars is .08%. He also had cocaine in his system. None of this is a surprise to us as viewers, as we meet Whitaker the morning of his flight, when he gets himself out of a hangover by sorting a line of coke.

Flight differs from a lot of movies in that by far its most exciting moments come very early on. But this isn't meant to be an exciting movie; it's a serious drama, and it's about Whit Whitaker's alcoholism. This is something Washington portrays expertly most of the time, although I could have lived without Whitaker's nervous tic of constantly sticking his tongue in his cheek, which is a little distracting. But Whitaker resolves to stop drinking several times, and it's true that we very much want this time to be the one that sticks. We learn quickly to stop expecting it to, though. This is a guy who lies to himself as much as he does everyone else, to the point that he seriously endangers his own federal hearing with his addictive behavior. This after even attending an AA meeting with a friend, which he walks out of. Whitaker just can't let himself be reached by the rhetoric of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Said friend is Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict Whitaker meets in the hospital after his crash -- she's there due to an overdose. We meet her earlier that same morning, a good while before we find out how she'll have anything to do with Whitaker. Whitaker promises to visit her, and does, and ends up opening his home to her when she's kicked out of her apartment. So begins a relationship that could go all kinds of clichéd ways and really doesn't here. Nicole actually manages to become sober, and however precariously, stay sober. Whitaker becomes such a hopeless cause that it was her I really worried about.

As with most alcoholics, though, Whitaker systematically manages to alienate not just Nicole but everyone else trying to help him. This includes a friend from the union (Bruce Greenwood) and the criminal lawyer (Don Cheadle) he brings to defend him, not to mention his estranged wife and teenage son. Thus, Flight in many ways is just another movie about an alcoholic's downward spiral.

The kicker here is the circumstances. Whitaker's own line of defense is always that no one else could have landed that plane the way he did, and that would appear to be true: no other pilot in simulated tests manages to save the crew. This is Whitaker's constant refrain of self-justification, as though his intoxication is irrelevant. Curiously, no one in the movie seems to note that it's still possible Whitaker made ill-informed decisions due to the intoxication. After all, even after his co-pilot eyes him suspiciously, he insists on pushing through terribly turbulent weather during take-off. I wonder if director Robert Zemeckis -- here doing his first live-action film since Cast Away in 2000 (hmm, that also featured a plane crash) -- included that just to illustrate Whitaker's piloting skills. But it came across to me as a little more like arrogant bravado. Why deliberately put the passengers at risk?

The mechanical failure of the plane is never put into question, though. The issue is never truly whether Whitaker pulled off a miraculous feat, sober or not -- he did -- but the fact that he was intoxicated when he did it. This gives Flight its unique kind of depth. It doesn't give it perfection, though; it's filled with Hollywood trappings, including the colorful drug dealer played by John Goodman, entertaining as he is (he's like a fat and profane Willie Nelson). And there's a line uttered by Washington near the end, intended to give both the character and the movie closure, that you can see coming a mile away; it's practically groan-worthy. Thankfully it's the one moment in the movie quite like that.

This is Denzel Washington's movie, though, and an Oscar nomination would not be at all surprising. He exercises admirable restraint in a role that a lesser actor would fill with unnecessary histrionics. That alone, much more so than the crash itself, is what makes it worth watching.

Denzel Washington takes 'Flight' in a movie that's moderately overrated.

Overall: B+
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